J. is a 20-year-old Korean-American college student currently studying in Los Angeles, California. She grew up her whole life in Alexandria, a suburban city in northern Virginia near Washington DC. She attributes her connection to her Korean culture through her family and regular engagement with Korean media.
This proverb can be used by anyone but is usually given from a parent to a child or from a wiser, older figure to a more naive, younger one in Korean language and culture. For J. she heard this proverb from her mom whenever she started to talk negatively about someone else.
“낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다”
Translation: “Birds listen to morning/day words. Rats listen to night words.”
This proverb serves as a premonition for those having in-group identification with Korean language and culture. While the animal-related translation does not necessarily make literal sense, it carries implied meaning behind it. Essentially, it implies that whenever or wherever you are, you should be careful about who you talk about because you might inadvertently be overheard by someone. Birds and rats are metaphorically likened to human listeners without explicit mention that they are so. The juxtaposition between opposites of day and night also lends poetic connotations to the phrase when spoken. This phrase is used as a warning for people to be careful about talking bad about others and to never be sure who could be eavesdropping—a virtually universally applicable mantra now conveyed proverbially through this piece of Korean folklore. The typical verbal deliverance of this proverb from an older, wiser figure to a younger, more naive one therefore often carries authority with it when performed.